Crime and [In]Justice in British India

Interact with the Anglo-Indian Project

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Kolsky’s (2010) study demonstrates that violence was central to British colonial rule in India. In the 17th century, Britons were against conquest by force. To create a way around this, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government – a theory of property rights, essentially dispossessing indigenous peoples by force – proposed that British sovereignty could be legitimately enforced with violence, when necessary. James Fitzjames Stephen reinforced this view in 1895, claiming force and justice were the supports of British power in India.

A powerful indication of force and [in]justice was highlighted in a recent article by Dinyar Patel, detailing the Orissa famine of 1866 which killed over a million people in eastern India. The British – through Cecil Beadon, the colonial governor of Bengal – declined to intervene, despite drought and a weak monsoon. This led to dwindling grain reserves, and the desperation of peasants no longer able to afford rice. In the mid-19th century, it was common economic wisdom that government intervention in famines was unnecessary and even harmful; no relief was the best relief. Any excess deaths, according to Malthusian principles, were nature’s way of responding to overpopulation (Patel, 2016). Between 1876 and 1878, during the Madras famine, anywhere from four to five million people perished after the viceroy, Lord Lytton, adopted a hands-off approach (Patel, 2016).

This brutal neglect by the British government was translated across the subcontinent, through acts of crime and violence, promoted by the actions of white judges, juries and police. Kolsky’s research is powerful in its assertion that the failure of colonial justice through the limited jurisdiction of criminal law, the feeble power of local authorities, and the failure of the courts to secure convictions, promoted beastly acts of brutality (2010:23). Chandrachud (2015) further highlights the prevalence of racial discrimination in British India, advocating the importance of class in the relations of British and Indian High Court judges. Walsh (1930) offered a series of (controversial) case studies depicting police investigation and judicial solution, along with what he termed the duplicity and cunning, the indifference to human life, the callous indulgence in false evidence and false charges and the lack of moral fibre of Indian villagers. Walsh highlights class as a key promoter of criminal behaviour, although does not fully acknowledge that the justice system itself was a key driver of criminalising the lower classes whilst protecting those from the affluent classes. The poor in British India were unjustly criminalized as dangerous classes (Yang, 1985). This was further inflated by the British administration who appeared to base their crime policies on 19th century philosophers such as Cesare Lombroso (and his – flawed – theory of the born criminal).

Kolsky highlights the disquieting violence that invariably accompanied imperial forms of power, and persuasively advocates that legal inequality and racial violence pervaded the colonial system of law.


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Interact with the Anglo-Indian Project

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